Buildings Harmonize with Nature to Expand the Virtual

There are many times when you are asked as an architect to design a building that harmonizes with its surrounding landscape — and as you make your attempt to not only harmonize, but to also integrate nature into your architectural design, you gain better appreciation for the surrounding context, community and even geography that brings forth the diversity of the native species. But now, with tools like augmented and virtual realities that are entering real world design, it is possible to incorporate nature in entirely new ways, where your architectural design can help to show its occupants nature as never before experienced.

A new project which takes a great step toward realizing this type of relationship between an architectural space and nature was created by the team at In Square Lab where their project called Urban Prairie is located within a relatively small physical space — but what it does with that small space is quite intriguing as it pushes the boundaries that define the relationship between architecture and nature, between inside and outside, and between the real and the virtual.

If you were walking down the street and encountered the Urban Prairie project, you would see “fields of grass” — where you, as a passerby, would engage and interact with physical grass that is equipped with sensors so as to create its movement as it sways in the imaginary wind — and this movement occurs in response to on-lookers that walk by or simply create motion with their body, thus activating the sensors and actuators that make up this interactive design installation.

Furthermore, the placement of the “real world” grass in motion in front of the “virtual world” grass (as seen in the monitors) which fades off into the horizon, takes participants into an experiential journey that transcends scale, the dynamics of wind and motion, as well as human perception of what it means for something to be “enclosed” — where the grass’ mechanized systems serve to connect it with its onlookers in a language that makes sense, yet surprises those that engage.

‍‍Image Courtesy of: © In Square Lab Ltd

The Urban Prairie project, led by Creative Director Jackson Tan of In Square Lab, explains that a main challenge for their team was to “create a system that allows for maintaining or even extending the notion of green spaces through intelligent use of design and technology via 4th dimension (time + space) design.” (1) And as such, I think it is an inspiring project that certainly gives food for thought to future designers to think in more creative terms that bring together seemingly unrelated or opposite worlds, to make them do things they could not do otherwise — as is the case here with architecture, nature and the use of technology that binds their relationship anew.

Now, to see the project in action, take a look at the following video and just imagine how you would respond if you came upon this design installation:


In particular, another aspect that I think you as an architect should not overlook is how kinetics is also at play within this Urban Prairie project. As such, the use of kinetics creates a two-way dialogue between the architectural design installation and the person engaging with it — even through the enclosing glass barrier. Beyond that, kinetics is also presenting nature (the grass) in a way that further invites the occupant to explore the mechanism that creates those movements — almost as if to let one see the “underground” that anchors each grass blade.

When seeing the sensors and actuators in action it informs participants at yet another scale…and that impression they take with them as they look outward into the virtual monitor grass displays that sway in response to participant movement. Furthermore, the distinction between inside and outside, where they become almost inverse, invites participants to reconsider what nature can do when taken out of its element.

As an architect, you can use such pointers as take-aways from this Urban Prairie project. After all, when you begin to integrate the virtual with real world design, entirely new landscapes (both architectural and otherwise) can form to take your building occupants into unexplored perceptual and experiential realms.


(1) Tan, Jackson. In Square Lab. Interactive Shop Window – Urban Prairie. 2011.

Image Courtesy of: © In Square Lab Ltd


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